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Santa Willie Delivers a "Pretty" Holiday Tale

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Pretty Paper: A Christmas Tale
By Willie Nelson with David Ritz
Blue Rider Press, 304 pp., $23

Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue
Wrap your presents to your darling from you
Pretty pencils to write "I love you"
Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue

In 1963, Willie Nelson wrote “Pretty Paper,” one of the more unusual holiday standards of recent times. It was a hit for Roy Orbison that year, and Nelson also cut a version. But most fans today are familiar with the later recording for Nelson's own 1979 Christmas album of the same name.

The gentle, lolling, and atmospheric song told the tale of a man with no legs who sold a hodgepodge of items outside a department store during the holiday season. As he calls out the names of his wares, the shopping crowd passes him by without paying any attention at all.

Amazingly, it’s based on Nelson’s real-life memory of a man who did just that outside of Leonards Department Store in Fort Worth, where he was living at the time.

In this easy-to-digest book, Nelson and Ritz (who co-wrote the singer’s autobiography) have fleshed out the story into a holiday tale, mixing fact with fiction with utterly charming and page-turning results.

The narrative follows two interspersed stories: One, that of “Willie Nelson,” a struggling country singer who meets the vendor and is intrigued by him and his background. The other is the text of a purported diary of the legless man, “Vernon Clay,” who has his own story of triumph and tragedy (well, lots of tragedy) to relate about his own career as a country singer/songwriter years before.

When Vernon disappears and Willie is given the diary to read, he makes it a personal quest to unravel the mystery of Clay’s life and how he ended up in his current circumstances, and get him what he’s due as a songwriter and performer.

Those who know something of Nelson’s actual life in music will be greatly amused by the portions that touch on reality. Willie’s bandmate “Brother Paul” is a grim, gun-toting musician clad in a black cape and round hat who bears, oh, more than a little resemblance to his own drummer of 50-plus years, Paul English (who really did occasionally brandish a weapon to get the band paid their fees).

Nelson and Ritz sometimes dip into maudlin holiday clichés with the tale, but the story also has a very Willie-like acerbic edge. After all, not every Christmas tale features the main narrator having sex with multiple busty women, avoiding flying beer bottles in concert, and kicking an enemy in the balls.

Interestingly, the identity of the actual man who Nelson saw outside of Leonards in Fort Worth all those years ago was discovered to be a guy named Frankie Brierton, who suffered from spinal meningitis. But he didn’t use a cart to get around like Clay, preferring to hobble along on his own arms and knees as he sold odds and ends on the streets of Dallas, Fort Worth and even Houston (on Main Street) before passing away in early 1973.

In a recent article in Texas Monthly, Brierton’s daughter is quick to claim the real inspiration for “Pretty Paper” wasn’t the lonely figure who emerged from Nelson’s lyrics. That’s because he had been married “seven times.” Sounds like material for another holiday book altogether.

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